Monday, 16 October 2017

What to do in NYC … with teenage girls

Kate, Marnie & Holly Goulston
Story and photos by Brett Goulston 

I still have my “L” plates on when it comes to parenting my teenage daughters.  At 13 and 15 they are into stuff that, well, I simply will never understand. Thankfully, my wife Kate, “gets” them but even so, we still had to work out what to do with teenagers in the Big Apple. The four of us arrive into JFK Airport late one evening. We grab a cab for the ride to our 6th Avenue apartment in Chelsea, which we have rented for the week (cheaper than two hotel rooms for the same period). 

Over the week I learn that travelling teenage girls just want to do one thing – shop … and shop … and shop … and this is particularly the case in NYC.  It’s all about clothes, make-up and stuff for their hair.  Icons like the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge pale into insignificance when shops like H&M, American Apparel, Sephora and Brandy Melville are calling. 

At one point we stand on Broadway and stare at the iconic, triangular-shaped Flatiron building built in the early 1900’s. I tell the girls it’s a masterpiece in architectural design, one of the Big Apple’s most iconic sights. They laugh at me!  Teenage girls just don’t care about this stuff. They want to shop. How dumb of me not to know this. 

By Day 4, it’s dropped to 0 degrees Celcius and on occasions, it snows. We take cabs everywhere because it’s too cold to walk or even to get the subway. We are not really prepared for the intensity of December’s freeze as we’d arrived from the tropics and our cold weather clothes are simply inadequate.  The answer to such cold is … more shopping of course! The kids can even rationalise this practicality – the shops are heated! 

Food is the only hobby I can share with them in this great city. My 13-year-old loves the burgers, the 99c pizza and Starbucks. We Google the latter’s name and find over 200 of them on Manhattan alone. The 15-year-old is into a healthier, vegetarian diet so she sources salad cafés (yes – they do exist) and we also visit a vegan restaurant. Between us, we have some great family times together over food. 

When it’s time to go home (read: stop shopping), the girls tell me they loved their NY experience and can’t wait to come back. I guess as they get older they will appreciate more than just the shopping.  But then again …

If New York is not your thing, Blue Dot Travel offers a range of fully-guided, family-friendly, 2-week trips to exciting destinations off the beaten path. Click here for more information on our family tours.  

Marnie, Holly and Kate Goulston

Monday, 9 October 2017

Namibia is a jewel of a country - Part 2

An old bull elephant in Damaraland

Story and photos By Margaret Farrell

Damaraland is a huge, untamed and ruggedly beautiful region in Namibia. We stayed at the Mowani Mountain Camp, hidden among some of the region's massive red granite boulders. The scene was set for us by the enthusiastic welcome we received at the gate, a joyous atmosphere which continued throughout our stay. Nothing was too much trouble and the emphasis was on enjoyment.

Our first safari in Namibia took place here when we headed out at dawn to track one of two elephant groups that live in the incredibly scenic area. We found plenty of evidence of elephants – fresh tracks and dung everywhere – but despite their large size, these cunning beasts are skilled at concealing themselves. To add insult to injury, when we headed back we found elephant tracks overlaying our own tyre tracks! Eventually we caught up with a solitary bull who obligingly posed for us as he scratched himself against a Mopani tree. He was what they call a “desert adapted” elephant, with longer legs and bigger feet than the savannah elephants.

Heading north we reached Etosha National Park, close to the Angolan border and regarded as an elite destination for watching wildlife. It lived up to its reputation, offering plenty of elephants along with large numbers of giraffe, zebra and deer of all descriptions. Most amusing were the antics of giraffes trying to drink, almost doing rather ungainly splits to get down low enough. We even saw a rare black rhino on a very full day of criss-crossing the park in an open-top four-wheel drive Toyota.

Our Namibia travel guide went totally out of her way to ensure we saw lions. We waited patiently at one waterhole near where lions had been sighted. Another sighting was reported, sign-posted by a herd of zebra all looking in the one direction. Imelda spotted the raised heads of three lionesses and one male among the grasses and low bushes and after a quick check to ensure no other vehicles were in sight, we dashed cross country, bouncing over tussocks and scattering zebra in all directions before finally stopping about 10m from the pride. A few quick photos and we raced back to the road before our lawless activity was spotted.

While the positives of safaris are obvious and emotive, do prepare yourself for what can be an incredibly cold pre-dawn departure in an open vehicle. The rugs provided do help but your face can take a beating as the wind whistles past. While the dust can be uncomfortable, witnessing such magnificent creatures in their natural and extraordinary Namibian habitat is indeed a rare privilege. Namibia's scenic natural beauty and remote wilderness is captivating and when combined with its great numbers of wildlife and interesting history, it makes for a wonderful and adventurous destination.

Blue Dot Travel's small group tours to southern Africa include going on safari in Namibia. Need more info - click here. 

Namibia sits in the south west of the Africa continent
Desert elephants in Damaraland

Zebra at a watering hole can be a sign of lion nearby

Desert lions in Etosha National Park

Those long legs making eating the treetops easy ... but getting a drink is another matter!

Deer abound in Etosha

Monday, 2 October 2017

Namibia is a jewel of a country - Part 1

Red sand dunes of Sossusvlei

Story and photos by Margaret Farrell


Sometimes described as Africa for beginners, Namibia unexpectedly assembles in one place many iconic experiences: the highest sand dunes in the world; the deepest canyon in Africa; one of Africa's richest historic art sites; the world's oldest, driest desert; abundant wild life. Our trip to Namibia did not disappoint. The people are friendly with lots of laughter. There is NO rubbish anywhere, either in the towns or the countryside, perhaps because there are heavy fines for littering. Even remote rural shanties are neatly fenced and their beaten earth surroundings scrupulously clean. There is an overall air of order and prosperity. Towns like Swakopmund and Walvis Bay are well set out with an abundance of good looking houses. We were told that most properties are owned by locals although Swakop attracts a lot of German retirees.

From Windhoek International Airport, we headed south-west towards Sossusvlei. Gravel roads predominate but they are wide, unexpectedly smooth and very well maintained, most coming with a 100kph speed limit.

The sand dune country is iconic: Sossusvlei is a large ephemeral pan set amid red sand dunes that reach 325m above the valley floor. Unfortunately we arrived in the middle of some very strong winds - and sand and wind are not good in combination. We regretfully declined the offer of sunrise/sunset tours of the heart of Sossusvlei as both excursions meant a 90-minute plus drive in open 4X4 vehicles with wind whipping our faces ... and camera equipment! We drove on, admiring the colourful dunes along the way. Dune 45, featured on many of Namibia’s travel brochures, was approachable. It looked magnificent with a plume of sand whipping off its crest.

Opinions vary as to whether the Skeleton Coast gained its name from the litter of shipwrecks or from the bones that were found amid the sand. The dunes march all the way to the coast and approaching the British-founded town of Walvis Bay was akin to driving through a giant sandbox. We headed north from there to the German settlement of Swakopmund on a sealed road that separated the sea from the mobile dunes. The sand here is of the usual light colour.

Swakop is pleasant enough with its German heritage evident in the buildings. We stayed at the Atlantic Villa, about 8 kms north of the town centre. ALL the accommodation in Namibia has been first class. There was no fault to be found at the pristine Atlantic Villa – and I’ve always been able to find faults in even the most luxurious accommodation.

Deciding we had exhausted the town’s shopping and sightseeing opportunities within the first few hours, we elected to take a scenic flight back over the Sossusvlei dunes and Skeleton Coast. A word of warning: the pilots of these joy flights are usually young jocks trying to accumulate flying hours towards a commercial licence for an airline. We passed over a couple of ship wrecks high and dry amid the sand dunes but there was no chance to photograph them as they were gone in the briefest moment.

From the sandy wastes of the Skeleton Coast we headed north into Damara country, the highlight of our Namibian jaunt. The landscapes are beautiful with their subtle colouring – vast seas of wheat-coloured grasses from which amazing rock formations arise. There are enormous piles of huge granite boulders, sandstone mesas and basalt hills dotted throughout with occasional trees.

The story of Namibia's people is a complicated one of colonial settlement and oppression mixed with the culture and customs of its traditional people. Damaraland is home to two very unusual tribes who provided us with memorable Namibian moments. The Herero ladies wear costumes based on those worn by Victorian-era German missionaries – multiple petticoats under a long dress teamed with a distinctive cloth headdress. The Himba people, an off-shoot of the Herero, have gone in the opposite direction. They wear little clothing and the women cover themselves with a mixture of red ochre and animal fat, which gives their skin a reddish tinge. They also anoint their hair with the mixture.

Blue Dot Travel offers small group tours to southern Africa, including Namibia safari tours.  To find out more click here
Map showing location of Namibia
An amazing country with sweeping landscapes

Wreck of a classic car in Namibia

Left - Himba tribes woman -        Right - Herero lady wearing Victorian costume

Wonderful landscapes in Namibia

Wreck of a classic car in the desert town of Solitaire Namibia

Monday, 25 September 2017

Naadam Festival in Mongolia - "The Three Games of Men"

Wrestling Mongolian style

Mongolia’s annual Naadam Festival first ran in 1920 but has its roots in the centuries-old traditions of the great Khans. The “three manly sports” of wrestling, archery and horse racing — the three skills that Chingis Khan valued most for his Mongol warriors — are showcased each July as part of Mongolia’s annual Naadam Festival.

Mongolia in general and the Naadam Festival in particular have started to attract world-wide attention from those tourists seeking unique travel experiences. Unfortunately, increasing tourism has seen the part of the Festival held in Mongolia’s capital of Ulaanbaatar turn into a modern spectacle which at times feels like a performance created just for tourists. Travellers are crammed into a large stadium and a great amount of pomp creates a carnival-like atmosphere not unlike that of an Olympic Games Opening Ceremony.

In contrast, at many rural locations in the country, tucked away on a lake’s edge, in a mountainous region or on the vast steppes, locals experience a truly authentic Naadam Festival where wrestlers, archers and horse racers are not on display for tourists. They are simply locals participating in traditions so very vital to their Mongolian culture. They are not sponsored athletes but rather, simply local people honouring the traditions of their forefathers. The Naadam Festival is one of the most pure and honest cultural celebrations that to be experienced anywhere in the world.

Come join Blue Dot Travel as we travel Mongolia and experience the rural Naadam as part of our upcoming small group tours of Mongolia. Click here for more information.

Map of Mongolia
Opening ceremony of Naadam Festival

Naadam horse racing

Opening ceremony

Locals heading to rural Naadam

Getting ready for horse race

Wonderful costumes for Naadam

Monday, 18 September 2017

Infatuated by the beauty of Ilulissat Greenland

By Kate Goulston

Bucket lists were pretty much invented for places like Greenland. Perhaps it is because the immense sense of magic and wonder is present in every moment of every single day. There is not one part of this experience that does not impress and excite.

To reach Ilulissat, fly with Air Greenland from Reykjavik or Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq and catch a connecting flight from Kangerlussuaq to
Ilulissat,  The awe starts shortly after take-off with jaw-dropping views over slushy, icy seas before flying hundreds of kilometres across a mesmerising packed-snow landscape intermittently dotted with fluorescent blue melting waterholes.

The airport is tiny, a mere 5 minutes down the road from the town of Ilulissat which is small enough to fully explore in one morning. You can discover the fish market offering musk ox and whale blubber, the local school, colourful traditional wooden dwellings, a handful of shops and cafés and the supermarket.  All the while you will be hearing the Greenland dogs howl inconsolably for food. Don’t be fooled though 
 the young ones may look cute but they would take your arm off as they exist on only the most meager of rations. 

At the edge of town, the entire view of the magnificent Ilulissat Icefjord is revealed and it is absolutely spectacular. This world famous UNESCO World Heritage Listed fjord runs 
40 km east from just south of the town of Ilulissat to the Greenlandic ice sheet. It is into this bay that giant chunks of ice “calve” away from the glacier and drop into the sea. You are surrounded by jaw dropping views of icebergs from every possible angle. Some icebergs are so enormous they get trapped for years until they roll or have melted enough to finally break free and drift north through the Arctic Ocean. One of the most remarkable buildings is the iconic Zion’s Kirke built in the 18th century and the largest man-made structure in Greenland at the time. If the sun is shining, your photos of this church could well be worthy of a National Geographic cover.

Blue Dot Travel has a three-week tour to Iceland/Svalbard with Greenland as an optional extra tour. Click here for more information.

Where is Greenland?

Brett and Kate Goulston in Greenland

Monday, 11 September 2017

Wadi Rum and its lunar like landscape

Wadi Rum and its lunar landscape
By Kate Goulston

Jordan had a little surprise in store for us: we came to tour Petra but it was Wadi Rum that blew us away with its special kind of magic. It is an ancient desert in Southern Jordan which encompasses over 700 square kilometres of jagged formations, towering dunes, cylindrical cliffs, natural rock bridges and an endless cascading red sand valley. Touring the desert in a 4WD pick-up truck is an unforgettable experience - a fun adventure ride rather than a scenic tour, taking you flying over the top of sand dunes and across the bumpy terrain. Be prepared to get stuck in sand and feel the driver skillfully manoeuvre backward and forward to release the wheels before commencing his daredevil descent down the face of the mountain. First photo stop on our tour was the magnificent Seven Pillars of Wisdom, an enormous stacked stone formation which has been named in honour of T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia), a British solider who helped lead the Bedouin tribes to victory over the Ottoman Turks during the Arab Revolt of WWI.  Most of the classic movie was filmed here on location at Wadi Rum. This huge rock formation, with its seven fluted turrets, is spectacular in its scale and beauty. From there we were driven to a giant sand dune and invited to scramble up the top to take in the full drama of the desert panorama. Our shoes were filled to the brim with red sand but it was worth every grain. 

Our last stop is a visit to a Bedouin tent camp for refreshments, complete with a unique glimpse into the way of life. Bedouin means “inhabitant of the desert” and refers to a group of semi-nomadic, tribal Arab people. The Bedouin are renowned for their hospitality and live by the ethos that today you are a host but tomorrow you may be a guest. This understanding has a long tradition throughout the Middle East and is a means of survival for tribal people living and crossing some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth.

To tour Wadi Rum is to see a unique and beautiful place. Baked for centuries under the rays of the desert sun it glows a magnificent deep red orange. The colours are spectacular and against the purest blue sky backdrop your photos will look as if you have landed on Mars. The quiet and stillness of the desert is part of the wonder, only marred on occasion by the cranky bellow of a passing camel. Wadi Rum is a true gem.

If this is somewhere that interests you, join Blue Dot Travel's small group tour.  To find out more click here

Map of Jordan and Israel
A moment with one of the locals

Camels in the desert - no better transport

Amazing colours of the desert

Marnie and Holly Goulston around the indoor kitchen with the locals

Amazing desert landscapes

Brett Goulston hanging out with the locals

Monday, 4 September 2017

The Flaming Cliffs of Mongolia

Flaming Cliffs also known as Bayanzag
The Flaming Cliffs is an escarpment on the edge of the Gobi Desert in southern Mongolia, by road some 660kms from the capital Ulaanbaatar. The cliffs became famous in 1923 when young American explorer and paleontologist Dr Roy Chapman Andrews from the American Museum of Natural History discovered the first dinosaur eggs and the now infamous velociraptor, the scarily intelligent dinosaur made famous by the 1993 movie Jurassic Park. This is one of the most significant sites on Earth for dinosaur fossils.

Part of Asia’s largest desert, the South Gobi was once an inland sea where life flourished some 80 million years ago in the Late Cretaceous Period. Many experts speculate that it was also a site of mass extinction where avalanche-like sand-slides both swept dinosaurs away and preserved their remains.

Apart from fossils the cliffs provide a wonderful vista of the steppes. At sunset, as the sun drops below the horizon, its rays bathe the sandstone cliffs in the fiery colours that give them their name. Blue Dot Travel offers Mongolia tours. 
Come and join us on a small group tour to this raw and wild destination and share a sundowner as the sun sets on this wonderful part of the Gobi Desert.  Find out more... click here.

Map of Mongolia
 Unique red sandstone formations in the Mongolian Desert

Brod Brennan in Mongolia

 Joanne Coughlan navigating her way down the cliff